Category: language

"Are you talking to me?"

Say cheese!


There’s a quiet menace about Mark Kozelek. His songs reveal he’s a sensitive guy but his highly personal, story songs never stray into sentimentalism.

The lyrics are full of the humdrum details from his life at home or on the road yet are delivered with such intensity that they seem positively revelatory.

He sings of being unable to shake his melancholy nature, a condition that I imagine is exacerbated by touring on his own and having time to brood in lonely hotel rooms.

On stage during this two-hour solo performance he’s not ice cold but not warm either. There’s no charm offensive. He seems pissed off that the audience don’t talk to him but doesn’t do much to meet us half way. He doesn’t even know what city he’s playing in so you get the impression that part of him doesn’t give a damn who’s listening and why.

He wonders why there is so much graffiti in Rome but nobody dares venture an opinion as to why Italians are so into street art. In the US, Kozelek says, kids have better things to do; they’re too busy mugging and stabbing people. This is a topic he also touches on in song form in Richard Ramirez Died Of Natural Causes.

Having a few rows of seating and playing under dimmed lighting efficiently communicates the fact that you take pictures or videos at your own peril. And amazingly, no-one does. I can’t remember the last show I went to when there was so little chatter and so few pulling out smart phones. “You are a nice, respectful audience”, Kozelek acknowledges near the end and he was not wrong. Continue reading

A Hawk & A Hacksaw – husband and wife duo Heather Trost & Jeremy Barnes performing at the Bronson club, Ravenna as part of the Transmissions Festival they curated.

 Father Murphy, A Hawk & A Hacksaw, Mouse On Mars at the Bronson Club, Ravenna.

The juxstaposition of styles presented during this concert  showed how sonic transmissions in our technically challenging (and challenged!) age can be by turns nostalgic, alienating and invigorating.

In Keywords (A vocabulary of culture and society) Marxist academic Raymond Williams wrote that, in the 18th century, the verb ‘to modernize’ was mainly applied to buildings and was not automatically regarded as something positive. Nowadays, modernization is generally associated with improvement and forward thinking. Williams noted that when we say modern now we generally refer to something which is “unquestionably favourable and desirable”. It signifies that you are up with the times and at one with the contemporary world.

Compare this to words like ‘tradition’ or ‘traditionalist’ which are commonly used to dismiss something as quaint yet old-fashioned and contrary to notions of innovation or change. We associate these terms with the work of artisans and craftsmen and think of outdated skills handed down from generation to generation.

When applied to music, ‘tradition’ is usually linked to an analog philosophy while to describe sounds as ‘modern’  is to say the artist is making a break with the past. However, an incessantly forward momentum has its pitfalls. The fact that discerning listeners will still seek out vinyl releases or lossless audio is a sign that the ‘modern’ day digital revolution is regarded in some quarters as a step backwards.

On the third and final day of Ravenna’s Transmissions festival the stark contrast between the old and the new was very evident. After being gently wooed by the Balkan-influenced folky charm of A Hawk And A Hacksaw (+ special guests) we were abruptly wowed by the uncompromising techno beats of German duo Mouse On Mars. Continue reading

FEED by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick Press, 2002)

Ever get the feeling that you are just part of the machinery?

Do you  have the sensation that information is accessing you NOT vice versa?

If you cannot categorically answer a defiant NO  to either of these questions then maybe Feed is the novel for you.

The publishers also think that you need to be a ‘Young Adult’ , or at least a mature teenager, to be classified as one of its target audience but I’d say the arguments are applicable to all ages. Continue reading

Wellness_ValleyThe French are renowned for their zero tolerance towards borrowing words from other languages. Previously I have regarded this as an extremist position but I am beginning to think they have a point. Italians are not so up tight on this issue and the consequences are plain for all to see.

Many schools have ‘Open Days’ , numerous companies adopt tiresome variations of Obama’s  ‘Yes We Can’ slogan and my local gym is peppered with motivational missives like ‘Never Give Up’  and ‘Impossible Is Nothing.

Using such phrases is presumably intended to show that corporate Italy takes an all-encompassing Anglo-American attitude to business, education and leisure pursuits.

Near where I live, the successful Technogym gym equipment company calls itself ‘The Wellness Company’™.  Their  ‘Technogym Village’ is a poncey name for their spanking new HQ which opened in 2013 and is located in what founder Nerio Alessandri has recently named  ‘Wellness Valley’. His stated  aim is to single-handedly create a sporty equivalent of  Silicon Valley in the heart of Emilia-Romagna. Continue reading

erinAlthough they must pass an exam to show they know English at an upper intermediate level, attendance on my 50 hour language courses for  these Italian university students is not compulsory.

In practice, this means that for the first few lessons around 70 come to the classes but then the numbers tend to dwindle. I count myself fortunate if, by the end of the course, the class size is still in double figures.

When I started out, some ten years ago, I took this drop out rate to be a sad reflection of my limited teaching ability. Now, I realise that even if I did a song and dance act every lesson,  the decline has to be accepted as inevitable. Students have heavy programs to follow and, rightly or wrongly (I would argue the latter), English is generally regarded as a luxury rather than as an essential subject.


This student reaction (from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is what I wanted to avoid.

In consequence. those that remain tend to be those whose linguistic knowledge is weak and are desperate for any tips on how to pass the exam,  or else they are among the select few who are already at a decent level and want to learn more.

The mid-way point of any course is potentially the  dead zone. It raises the dispiriting prospect of grinding on with grammar drills or ‘realistic’ listening comprehensions that hardly anyone understands.

This year I decided to take the bull by the horns and try something different. The primary motive for this was to preserve my own sanity and I also hoped that the knock on effect might be to generate a modicum of interest among my loyal students.

I pitched the idea that each of the remaining lessons should be built around movie clips and this met with a positive response. I have, of course, used such material in the past but I have never previously undertaken to select a different title for consecutive classes. In this instance, it means I will have to choose a dozen different films. (Was I making a rod for my own back, I wondered!). Continue reading


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